Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #33 – Star Wars Ep. 1: The Phantom Menace

Posted: May 11, 2021 in Uncategorized

© 2021 G.N. Jacobs

More than twenty later, this film still resonates as the Star Wars movie most of us hated when we saw it. I myself am not immune to such passions. In that time, there has also been backlash to the original backlash in favor of the movie, but other than what I will list below that kinda almost worked…it’s still the movie that dragged the rest of the Fall of Anakin Skywalker trilogy into [BEEP!].

The plot. Political turmoil between the Trade Federation (I swear they made a dig upon Star Trek here), the rest of the galaxy represented by the Galactic Senate and the small, peaceful and lush planet of Naboo results in a blockade of said nice planet. Two Jedi, Qui-Gon-Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), get sent on the sly to muscle a settlement, but find dark and nefarious forces at work that reveal the Trade Federation more interested in taking over temperate, green and comfortable to live on planets.

In the running around on Naboo’s surface said Jedi make friends with a Gungan (an amphibian humanoid species sharing the planet with the human Naboo society). They rescue the elected Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) escaping in a damaged ship landing for repairs on Tatooine where we meet nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), presently a slave born under strange circumstances. There’s a lot of gambling and doubling down between Qui-Gon and the blue Toydarian Watto that leads to a pod race that provides the parts to repair the ship and free Anakin.

We move to the galactic capitol where the Queen pleads for redress with Naboo’s representative, Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), at her side. The Senate being used as a chew toy by the as yet hidden Sith Lords ends up telling the Naboo to drop dead as “we really should send another blue-ribbon investigating committee.” The Queen calls for a vote of No Confidence that results in the election of Senator Palpatine as the new Chancellor and then goes home to lead the big battle with her new Gungan allies to free Naboo, a battle where Anakin foreshadows his son, Luke, blowing up the Death Star twenty-three years later, by blowing up the droid control ship with a proton torpedo shot to a conveniently exposed reactor.

The people who have made hating on Menace and the rest of Episodes 1-3 into a cottage industry focus most of their geek wrath around two tentpoles for their scorn, derision and slight regard: Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and baby Anakin. There are other reasons to feel disappointed, some that will be listed here. There are also points of logic that conversely suggest lighten up, a failing common to many Star Wars fans.

Most of my fellow nerds will comment in the Anakin section of the bashing session that a nine-year-old protagonist makes the rest of the movie difficult to believe even before we get to the technical part about did Mr. Lloyd successfully do his job? The rest of the characters are pretty much acting like adults, even the fourteen-year-old Queen Amidala (possibly a thematic callback to our real history where teenaged monarchs frequently kicked ass and took names because teenagers weren’t actually considered children until about a hundred years ago). 

The nine-year-old boy with the great skill at the flight controls wins the pod race, but is then shunted into a spare Naboo cockpit for the space battle making his almost accidental entry into the furball almost as if Anakin as an archetype vies with Jar-Jar for being the Accidental Fool…someone Inspector Clouseau would very much understand. I think a lot of the people commenting how weird Anakin played out on screen would eventually land on – “guys, you can’t have it both ways, either Anakin is this great pilot that makes a conscious decision to blow up the Trade Federation’s Battle-Donut that no one even thinks about ordering to stay out of the way in the spare space fighter, or he’s the young waif to whom things happen accidentally.” How much danger can you put a nine-year-old protagonist in anyway? I have yet to discover that formula myself and thus avoid writing YA novels as if I might catch the measles.

And twenty plus years later just say the name Jar-Jar Binks. You can say it straight or with the growly delivery of that old guy in The Graduate urging for a fulfilling career in Plastics; you’ll get the same result from everybody older than the age of nine at the time the movie originally dropped. 

Variations of – “Ugh! Who told George Lucas that this clutzy, tries too hard at comedic relief and eats up too much screen time at the expense of what passes for the main plot was a good idea? And that’s before we get all nasty about his forced mostly Jamaican patois in a movie where we’re also choosing to be angry that the primary villains who aren’t Sith all speak like Asian villains from a Fu Manchu movie.” Kids who were in the target audience at the time who are now twenty-ish swear Jar-Jar is the funniest thing ever. I was thirty. Jar-Jar bombed about like taking out Rotterdam.

There is so much more to bash about the movie and I’ve heard them all at the counter of various comic book stores, at least for the first few years until there wasn’t anything new to be had raking this one over the coals. Didn’t like Padme’s dresses. Hated the stilted dialogue almost completely devoid of contractions. Goes back and forth between thinking the pod race sequence the only thing that keeps the first half of the movie moving or perhaps it was a cheap stunt to trick the audience into enjoying the dead air in the story.

I promised you, Dear Reader, that there are some good and interesting things about The Phantom Menace. Here are a few…

The effects and music. Industrial Light and Magic always goes whole hog for a Star Wars movie, the franchise that willed their organization into being. We may get nasty about – “Really, Tatooine again!” – but the sand looks like it always does…gorgeous.

This time around when composer John Williams set his pencil to paper the highlight ended up being “Duel of the Fates.” Set under the big lightsaber rumble on Naboo we get a classic piece of acrobatic cinema. Who cares that, yet again, a Jedi has to lose someone and get angry to win the fight…despite strict dogma against getting angry?

The actors playing the Jedi, McGregor and Neeson, showed why they’ve torn up Hollywood…in other movies. It is alleged that with nothing on the page to play when having dinner at Shimi Skywalker’s (Pernilla August) humble house, that Mr. Neeson starts creating heat between the Jedi Master and analogue for the Virgin Mary. Just a light hint of maybe…

Ewan McGregor infuses his young Obi-Wan Kenobi with an infectious smile running interference for a brash character that still has many years ahead to his worst day, turning his best friend Anakin Skywalker into a Benihana entrée. Wait, good acting in a Star Wars movie? It happens.

The other fascinating aspect of this film that carries through the whole early trilogy is the genius move of establishing Senator Palpatine and Darth Sidious as owning both sides of the emergency that brings him to power. In a movie where the fans have already read ahead, there is an official attempt to separate the two characters that we don’t see Sidious take off his robe to become Palpatine. However, there’s no actual attempt to hide this with, say, Batman lowering his voice and growling.

Owning both sides of the war struck me personally at the time I first saw the movie. It had to do with Evil Stepdad 2.0 who was a conspiracy theorist for whom the true masters of the universe were alleged to own both sides of all conflicts because you always win if you’re both the Good Guys and the Space Nazis at the same time. He kept on and on about this creating a hugely integrated world view that largely predated QAnon. And then to see this concept onscreen in a Star Wars movie…

However, while we’re on the subject of Galactic politics, whatever cool and interesting we got from Palpatine owning the whole war making the results irrelevant, we gave back in the depiction of the Neimodians of the Trade Federation. For the life of me, applying any concept of the why of War whether from Sun Tzu or von Clauswitz I couldn’t figure out why the Trade Federation escalated their blockade over being taxed too high into an invasion…other than someone having read Syd Field and arbitrarily deciding – “we need an invasion to let the rest of the movie make sense.”

Sorry, I couldn’t resist one last dig at a movie that pretty much belly flopped from the Ten-Meter platform at the Olympics… 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s